RALEIGH — Getting by as a writer often involves multitasking, which is something that 2014 Piedmont Laureate Carrie Knowles has been doing for a very long time.
While studying creative writing at Detroit’s Wayne State University in the late 1960s, Knowles paid the bills by writing anything and everything, anywhere she could – including a magazine where she talked herself into a job covering racing sports.
“I’d spend every weekend covering drag-car, speedboat and motorcycle races all over Michigan,” said Knowles, 64. “I’d interview race-car drivers, engineers, you name it. Then I’d go home, stay up all night Sunday writing it up, turn it in Monday morning and go to school.”
That was good preparation for a career in which Knowles has written radio and advertising copy, travel features, restaurant reviews and books, including a memoir (2000’s “The Last Childhood: A Family Story of Alzheimer’s”). Her latest book is 2013’s “Ashoan’s Rug” (Roundfire Books), which is as much a short-story collection as it is a novella. It’s structured as a series of character sketches about the different owners of a magical Turkish prayer rug.
Short fiction is Knowles’ focus as this year’s Piedmont Laureate, too.
Started in 2009 to “promote awareness and heightened appreciation for excellence in the literary arts throughout the Piedmont region,” the program is a cooperative venture between Raleigh/Wake County’s United Arts Council and Alamance, Durham, Orange and Wake counties. Writers apply for the honor, which pays a $6,500 stipend.
In previous years, the program has chosen laureates who focused on poetry (Jacki Shelton Green), novels (Zelda Lockhart), nonfiction (Scott Huler), screenplays (Ian Finley) and children’s literature (Jean Claude Bemis). During her time as laureate, Knowles is charged with maintaining a blog about the craft of writing while conducting events and workshops throughout the four-county Piedmont area.
Short fiction is the perfect medium for intensive writing workshops like the one Knowles will lead Monday night at Raleigh’s Irregardless Cafe.
“They really are WORKshops,” Knowles said. “I give little jumpstarts fundamental to short fiction, some prompts and ideas to get people on their way. They spend an hour writing, then everybody reads a page someone else wrote and gives feedback.”
Not that anyone should get the idea that writing a short work is easier than writing a long one. Aspiring writers often approach short fiction with some misconceptions.
“The biggest one is that it’s easy and you ought to be able to knock something out quickly,” Knowles said. “Most people just don’t want to hear how long it takes to really write something. A lot of people think short fiction should be easier, but I think it’s the more difficult form because everything has to fit. It’s more interesting to me because it’s so hard.”
As an example of just how time-consuming short stories can be, Knowles cited one of the key plot points of “Ashoan’s Rug” – whether or not one of its characters will keep some money he found. Knowles went back and forth over it for a couple of months before finally figuring out what the character would do.
“I work at it every day, 9 to 5,” Knowles said. “I have an office I go to and people ask how often I’m there. All day Monday through Friday, same as anyone else. I’m writing and doing everything else you have to do as a writer because the business of writing really is a business these days. You almost have to spend as much time promoting and building an audience as writing, which surprises people.
“There’s still that idea of publishing a book that magically appears in bookstores and everyone loves it,” she added. “Sometimes that happens, but most of us have to put effort into getting it out there. Part of a writer’s job is keeping literature alive by being willing to be out there talking about it. As laureate, I’m supposed to advocate for writing. But all writers have to do it. Being a recluse hiding in a corner, that does not work anymore.”
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